When the World Crowds In: Finding Our Footing

Hong Kong to Guangzhou, China, September 1994:

At one of Hong Kong’s north rail stations, my friend Sandra and I, along with her teenage son and mine, join the jostle of Asian travelers and commuters boarding the train to China. The high-backed, wooden bench seats are filling fast. My son and Sandra’s find two places together. I choose a rear-facing seat beside a window with a tiny, bolted-down table standing between me and a grandmotherly woman seated across from me. Beside me on the aisle side of my bench is a lively older man, who tries to strike up a conversation. Unfortunately, I speak no Chinese, and he speaks no English, so he turns to Sandra, who is sitting across from him, beside the grandmother. Sandra knows enough Chinese to converse a bit.

As the train starts its two-hour journey to Guanzhou, I pull my camera out of my shoulder bag, eager to snap some pictures of the Chinese countryside. But the windows are so smudged and grimy that it’s hard to find a section clean enough to provide a good view. Still, I have to try. The farmland is picturesque, the crops laid out in rows about three feet wide and mounded in the center. Only a few people are in the fields, and they’re bent over the rows, working by hand. I see no machinery except a plow pulled by a water buffalo.

Back inside the train, a hostess periodically walks the aisle, selling wares of all kinds: books of stamps, newspapers, candies, mints, gum, and boxed hot lunches (rice with meat and vegetables). From time to time, she returns with a broom and sweeps up the trash everyone is tossing onto the floor. She scoots the mound of trash to the door between the train cars and shoves it out onto the tracks. Now I know why I see trash scattered between the train tracks and the fields. Occasionally I see someone picking through it. I assume that’s where the field workers get the plastic bottles that are turned upside down, covering the young plants.

The towns we pass are full of tall, whitewashed, look-alike apartment blocks or short rows of stable-like houses. Bamboo scaffolding surrounds many buildings, as if the urban areas are growing and thriving, but I don’t see many construction workers. I also can’t help but think these bamboo scaffolds could be a hazard during extreme weather, using bamboo scaffolds with something such as these Pro-Tect Plastics could perhaps be a little safer to protect the scaffolding and construction taking place within. I do notice a few railway workers here and there, laboring manually along the railroad ties, which are made of concrete. Sandra tells me that there aren’t enough trees to make the ties out of wood.

Our approach to Guanzhou (Old Canton) takes us through miles of rice paddies before we roll into the big city with its crowds and noise and smog. As the train pulls into the station, our fellow travelers surge to their feet, and as soon as the train halts, they pour out the doors and flood the walkway in a rushing tide that sweeps us with it. Fortunately, my son is tall and blonde, so I can easily locate him in the sea of satin black heads in front of us. But that’s all I can see: heads. I notice that those at the front of the pack are dropping out of sight. It’s as if I’m rafting in a swift-flowing river, suddenly realizing that up ahead it flows in a waterfall over a cliff. We’re obviously heading toward a staircase that I can’t see, and in this crowd, there’s no slowing and no stopping. I can’t help but think of lemmings.

I also can’t help but think of news reports about people trampled to death at crowded soccer stadiums or among midnight shoppers shoving to get into Wal-Mart for the best Black Friday deals. But we’re in the middle of the crowd, and there’s no way to go but forward and down. It gives new meaning to “Go with the flow.” And we do. We flow down the stairs and into a corridor, where we shuffle forward, packed shoulder to shoulder. The crowd practically carries us along to the exit, where small turnstiles squeeze us out of the station like toothpaste from a tube. My friend’s son comments that the object of this configuration seems to be to force the greatest number of people through the smallest possible opening.

On the way down the corridor, I had noticed guards sitting on gates and ledges above the masses. Now that I’ve gone through the turnstile, I realize that the guards are not above the crowd just to oversee everyone but also to stay out of the way. Otherwise, they risk getting squeezed through the turnstiles themselves. I couldn’t help but think that something like a tripod turnstile gate would have been better than the current system. I exit the train station with a new motto: “Whatever you do, step carefully and keep your balance.”

Sometimes it feels as if the whole world is out of balance. Work and school schedules, news cycles, issues with home, family, and friends crowd around us, tipping us one way, tilting us another as they sweep us along and squeeze us out at the end of the day. Often, the best we can do is step carefully and try to keep our balance.

Next week: What is balance? How do we find it? How do we know when we’ve found it? How do we keep it? And what does it have to do with faith?

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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